Traceability Programs Deliver Food Safety and Bottom Line Benefits
Today’s food supply chain, as well as the products that travel within it, has become more complex than ever before. Consequently, tracking items on their route from farms and manufacturers to grocery store shelves to customers’ tables has become a more complex but also more important challenge—one that makes traceability programs essential to retailing today.
“The concerns about both the safety and quality of food continue to escalate,” says William Fisher, vice president of Science & Policy Initiatives at the Institute of Food Technologists® (IFT).
Fisher cites foodborne illnesses, recalls, fraudulent activities, an influx of products from countries with lower health and safety standards, higher risk of contamination or spoilage due to complex supply chains, and the added threat of terrorism among current concerns.
“Why is traceability so important?” Fisher continues. “The reason really depends on who you talk to.”
Those in the public safety arena, he says, are concerned about reducing incidences of food fraud, unintentional and intentional adulteration, disease management, and environmental emergencies. For businesses, traceability focuses on risk management and mitigation—issues like lowering the impact of recalls and decreasing liability costs. “Supply chain efficiencies also relate to productivity, cash flow improvements, innovation, and reducing waste,” he adds.
Benefits of Traceability Initiatives
Being able to trace products in all parts of the supply chain—both backward and forward, at any given time—is important because it enables companies to identify ingredients in a product if a problem occurs, according to Hilary Thesmar, vice president of food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).
“To identify any issues that arise, you need to be able to identify where products are and pull them if you need to,” Thesmar stresses.
Although traceability programs can’t prevent a negative event, effective initiatives can help mitigate the damage by giving all players within the supply chain information that can help determine where the problem began.
“In the event of a recall/withdrawal, you can reduce the time to access critical data, preventing further movement of the product in question,” Fisher explains. “Having a sound traceability program can also help reduce the scope of the recall/withdrawal and enable faster recovery of normal business activities.”
Thesmar concurs. “It can’t necessarily stop an incident from happening, but it can help identify a problem product and enable it to be removed from the market faster,” she says. “It can contain the problem by speeding up an investigation from weeks or month to hours or days.”
But while traceability programs began due to food safety concerns, ancillary benefits have been discovered over the past few years as well, Thesmar notes.
“A traceability program is a built-in insurance system,” Thesmar says. “But even if you never have to use it in a food safety event, it can help you realize benefits for your business.”
Knowing where products are within the supply chain, for example, can lead to better inventory control, better efficiencies, and cost savings. “Companies began to realize, ‘If I know where product is, I can control how much is in my warehouse, and I can control out-of-stocks and overages,’” Thesmar says. “Many people didn’t expect that—those were surprise benefits!”
Steps Retailers Can Take
There are a number of ways grocery retailers can achieve traceability within their organizations, Fisher says. He offers the following tips for retailers looking to launch a successful traceability program:
Step #1: Look at internal traceability that tracks incoming food products such as fresh produce, as well as how those products are stored and used to fill store shelves. “This is done by understanding the Critical Tracking Events (CTEs) in the food inventory management process and capturing certain Key Data Elements (KDEs) at each CTE,” Fisher explains. “It is critical to ensure the link doesn’t get broken during the storage and retrieval stages—the company should know which batch/lot of food products was stored in its internal warehouse or storage room and which batch/lot was loaded onto shelves for sale to consumers.”
Ideally, Fisher adds, retailers would be able to track consumer shopping cards with those same batch/lot numbers, “although it’s not always possible given current label and identification techniques used for groceries,” he says.
Step #2: Look at external traceability that links suppliers and customers to your internal traceability system. “Build a collaborative partnership with your suppliers and customers to ensure that they understand and buy into the value of effective traceability,” Fisher advises. “Sometimes this includes having contractual agreements that everyone will capture, store and share CTEs and KDEs upon request. It can also include using third-party auditors to verify that the traceability system is functional, verifiable, and accurate.”
Once a traceability program is in place, making sure it works the way it should is an important step, Thesmar says.
“Work with your suppliers, whether for a lot of produce or packaged food item, and ask them to test it as far back as possible,” Thesmar says, comparing such a test to a mock recall or training exercise. “Eventually the product will get all the way back or will get stuck somewhere along the supply chain—that will show where there are gaps, and how long it takes to connect the dots in the supply chain. It will reveal how long it takes suppliers to pull the information you’ve asked them to pull.”
The Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC)—a collaborative partnership including public and private stakeholders that was created to address the challenges and opportunities of global food traceability implementation—recently issued “A Guidance Document on the Best Practices in Food Traceability.” The guide describes best practices in food traceability, and provides a comprehensive framework for six food industry sectors (bakery, dairy, meat and poultry, processed foods, produce, and seafood). To download a free copy of the document, visit http://info.ift.org/guidance-document-in-the-best-practices/.